TALLAHASSEE — A rite of spring in the state capital began Tuesday as a House committee rolled out a spending plan sharply different from the Senate's, triggering a series of philosophical debates over how to spend the public's money while plugging a $3.2 billion shortfall.
Election-minded lawmakers must cover that deficit, cope with a mushrooming Medicaid caseload and maintain school spending, without raising taxes. Hundreds of vacant state jobs would be eliminated in both budgets.
The House's $67.2 billion budget is nearly $1.5 billion less than the Senate's $68.6 billion version. The House would stockpile $1.8 billion in savings for next year, partly to plug future budget holes caused by the "flameout" of federal stimulus money.
Lobbyists for firefighters, police and other state workers criticized the House for wiping out a health care subsidy paid to nearly 300,000 retired government workers to save $224 million.
Road builders, truckers and other ground transportation advocates blasted the House for siphoning $466 million from a road-building fund to balance the budget. "A jobs killer," said Sally Patrenos of the Florida Transportation Commission.
"We need to find revenues to fill that hole," said Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, chairman of the House Budget Council that approved the spending plan on a party-line vote.
The state office that helps minority-owned businesses get government contracts survived despite a House effort to virtually eliminate it, following criticism from African-American lawmakers. Operators of prekindergarten programs praised the House for taking $53.4 million from the public schools budget to avoid bigger cuts to a statewide public-private program that provides early childhood education.
About two dozen highway safety community services officers who investigate minor crashes face losing their jobs in the House version. Most work in Orlando and Tampa Bay.
At the same time, the Senate released the first version of its $68 billion budget, featuring no raid on the highway fund, a 7 percent pay cut for legislators and the sale of one of two aircraft used by the governor and other officials.
Both chambers eventually will be forced to agree on a single budget for the annual session to end on time April 30.
Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo and Cristina Silva contributed to this report.